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In Philadelphia in 1946, Alfred Eaton returns home from the war to find his mother Martha a wretched alcoholic, the victim of years of neglect and abuse from her husband Samuel, the owner of a prestigious iron and steel company. Samuel emotionally withdrew from his family thirteen years earlier after the death of his beloved son Billy, and still resents the fact that Billy died while Alfred lives. When Samuel begrudgingly offers Alfred a position in the family business, Alfred states that he is moving to New York to launch an aircraft business with his old friend Lex Porter. While attending a party at the estate of Lex's wealthy uncle, Fritz Thornton, Arthur spots Mary St. John, the stunning daughter of a Main Line family. Mary, who is secretly engaged to Dr. Jim Roper, is sexually drawn to Alfred, and soon the two are embroiled in a tempestuous relationship. When Mary's snobbish parents object that Alfred's father is a nobody and his mother is a drunk, Mary defies them and continues to see Alfred. After Alfred asks his father for a loan to finance his share of the aircraft company, Samuel humiliates Alfred and begins to sob for the lost Billy. Furious, Alfred storms out in disgust, after which Samuel suffers a heart attack and is hospitalized. Believing that Samuel's ill health will place Alfred closer to the helm of the Eaton Steel company, Mr. St. John condones his daughter's engagement to Alfred. On the day of the wedding, Alfred receives word that his father has died. Certain that Samuel has timed his death to spite him, Alfred goes ahead with the ceremony. With Thornton money, Lex and Alfred then fund the Nassau Aircraft Corporation, but when Lex shows more interest in perfecting aircraft designs than in selling planes, Alfred, hungry for riches, becomes impatient. One wintry day, Alfred and Mary are driving home from a party at the Thornton estate when they see a little boy fall through the thin ice of a frozen pond. After Alfred plunges into the icy waters to save the boy, the boy's grandfather, James Duncan MacHardie, the most famous financier in America, invites Alfred and Mary to dinner. MacHardie, a shrewd businessman, senses Alfred's drive and ambition, and when Alfred asserts that his goal in life is to earn more money than his father, MacHardie offers him a job in his investment firm. Obsessed by success, Alfred travels the country for MacHardie, leaving Mary alone for months at a time. Mary, lonely and self-pitying, begins to resent Alfred's constant absences. When Creighton Duffy, MacHardie's son-in law, whose position in his father-in-law's business is threatened by Alfred's acumen, suggests that Alfred spend two months in rural Pennsylvania counseling investment to Ralph Benziger, a prosperous coal mine owner, Alfred finds his marriage to Mary irretrievably broken. After an ugly argument with Mary, Alfred goes to Pennsylvania, and one night, is invited to dinner at Benziger's, where he meets Benziger's compassionate, ingenious daughter Natalie. Overwhelmed by Natalie's sensitivity, Alfred impetuously invites her to a movie, but she refuses. Later that night, however, Natalie phones Alfred at his hotel room and arranges to meet him at a drive-in the following evening. After Alfred tells Natalie that her warmth and generosity has made him realize what a sham his marriage is, they kiss. Later, however, Natalie reconsiders and decides that they must end their relationship and they part, still loving each other. Upon returning to New York, Alfred is immediately summoned to MacHardie's office, where MacHardie informs him that Mary is having an affair with Jim. After warning Alfred that he will not tolerate divorce within his firm, MacHardie assigns him to analyze the Nassau Aircraft Corp. as a possible investment. One night while leaving a party with Mary, Alfred unexpectedly encounters Natalie in front of the hotel. Sensing that Alfred and Natalie have been intimate, Mary vindictively calls Jim and makes a date with him. Later, Alfred meets Natalie and tells her that although he is estranged from Mary, his career prevents him from divorcing her. Duffy, who has become unethically involved with Nassau Aircraft and will reap a financial windfall if MacHardie invests in the company, threatens to blackmail Alfred unless he suppresses his report. One night, while Alfred and Natalie share a passionate embrace in her hotel room, photographers hired by Duffy burst in and snap a picture of their indiscretion. After Alfred considers giving into Duffy's blackmail, Natalie, uncertain if he is trying to save her reputation or his career, decides to leave him. When Alfred returns home, Mary suggests that they share an open marriage and proclaims that she will never divorce him. After Mary seductively retires to her bedroom, the scandalous photos are delivered to Alfred. At a business meeting the next day, MacHardie ushers in Mary to celebrate Alfred's surprise promotion to partner. As Duffy smirks, Alfred denounces MacHardie's hypocrisy of placing success and social position above personal responsibility and happiness. Alfred then issues the uncensored report exposing Duffy's duplicity and walks out. When Mary runs after him, he accuses her of trying to revive their marriage solely to savor the prestige of being married to a partner in the MacHardie firm. With Mary screaming at him, Alfred drives off to reconcile with Natalie.